For as long as I remember not a day has passed without my friend the book. Reading is not only educational but a fine source of entertainment, inspiration. I have never cared much for the movies or television.
The guilty pleasure in the evenings though, is the occasional thriller, spy novel. Total escapism, much better than anything on TV.
And being an Estonian, I am a cheapskate. OK, frugal. The local library is a boon. Loading up with reading material before the holidays I borrowed Gerald Seymour’s latest, last year’s “A Damned Serious Business.” Seymour has been called the best thriller writer in the world (Daily Telegraph). Unbeknownst beforehand, this book has a lot of Estonian content, to my surprise.
Seymour has been writing for some time. As a reporter for ITN he covered many significant events such as the Munich Olympics and in places like Vietnam, Israel and Aden. This is his thirty-fourth novel.
It is also the first book written in English in any fiction category that dedicates so much print to Estonia, to Narva in particular. And the second in this genre with Narva references. The first was Jason Matthews’ “Red Sparrow”, published in 2013, winning many awards. It was made into a movie, starring Jennifer Lawrence, which was screened last year. That book, reviewed on these pages soon after publication, had its denouement, climax in Narva, on the bridge crossing the Narva River.
The plot, briefly, is about a British incursion into Russia, to counter the ever-growing cyber threat posed by young hackers. An old MI6 case officer nicknamed Boot, charmingly so, for the ancient spy is obsessed with the Duke of Wellington, leads it. Frequent references to the combat of Napoleon spice up the book. Indeed, the title is an utterance of the Duke’s.
How to get into Russia? Why, through Estonia of course. The handler chosen for this task is named Merc, short, obviously, for a freelancer, a man who takes on such assignments. His importance is that he carries “deniability” for this operation must not be connected in any way to the Brits. Seymour’s knowledge of Estonia is thorough. Entering the country at Tallinn, the author proves his research of our capital city. Thence to Narva, the easternmost border point between the EU. Crossing the bridge is out of the question. And as the river is very closely watched by Russian border guards on foot, in watchtowers and patrol boats this is a huge challenge. Merc, however, is undaunted.
Meanwhile an Estonian team of three middle-aged Haapsalu men, transplants to Narva is recruited. Toomas, Martin and Kristjan are, alas, no paragons of virtue. One a womanizer, another a gambler and of course the last a drinker. But they can drive across the bridge no problem, are hired to pick up Merc once he is in Russia, and drive him to an outskirt of St Petersburg where a conference of young hackers is being held, organized by both criminals, mafiya clan leaders and corrupt politicians, high-ranking military men.
Merc spends a day reconnoitering how he will cross the river on a swimming board. This gives Seymour plenty of room in the book to describe the area, including the cemetery of German/Estonian soldiers that was bulldozed by the Soviets after war’s end. Having been there myself I can attest to the accuracy. Indeed, one of the pleasures of this book is familiarity and the knowledge that Western readers can learn about Estonia’s brutal wartime history. Seymour also, to my delight, focused on the heroism of all the men fighting in the German forces, halting the Soviets for months. The author points out that this last stand allowed many to flee to the west. The Sinimäed are mentioned, and the history of Narva well described.
Merc somehow crosses the Narva, hides his swimming board, and sets out looking for his team of drivers. From there on the action is fast and furious, a real page-turner. Debacles abound. And Merc’s return river crossing is gripping. Another smashing ending.
Perhaps half of the book takes place in Narva, or on the banks of the mighty river. It is a very entertaining work, highly recommended. You can find it at the library, considering Seymour’s stature and prominence in the spy fiction category.
In cyber war the good guys need soldiers. This story of pursuit and evasion, an epic battle for survival is sure to become a classic. And Narva a name recognized by others.
Tõnu Naelapea, Toronto